The Truth Obscured: the Failings of Edward Said’s Orientalism

“In a Harem” — John William Waterhouse

Written by Selena Zeledon and David Bryant

Defending the West by Ibn Warraq is a refutation of Edward Said’s anti-orientalist book Orientalism, but more importantly, Warraq’s text defends occidental and western culture and their relationship with the east based on the west’s own inherent virtues and the failings of Islamic culture to be open minded. Warraq’s book is divided in to three main sections with handy titled subsections. The first part of Defending the West is a very detailed essay directly arguing against Said’s main points in Orientalism. The second section of Warraq’s book makes a case for the virtues of Western culture and its relationship with the east based on the west’s cultural tradition of rationalism, universalism, and ability to criticize itself. The third part explores and defends orientalist western art, literature, and music. Warraq’s counterarguments against Said’s Orientalism along with his arguments in favor of the west’s attitude toward the other and orientalism as positive, rather than racist or imperialistic, are well researched, logical, and thorough although at times Warraq may appear excessively critical of Said and the Islamic world to people who have not been exposed to the true traditions of the Islamic east.

Warraq’s book as a whole shows a high level of scholarly integrity from its source information to its analysis of Said’s use of historic and other forms of source information. The Defense of the West’s extensive bibliography of historical, orientalist, and occidentalist texts demonstrates Warraq’s commitment to providing readers with a well informed argument. Although Said’s text is also informed by historical and orientalist sources, Warraq argues that much of Said’s information is historically inaccurate or misrepresentative of the authors’ intentions. Warraq especially emphasizes the faulty nature of Said’s historic information in the sub section “Historical and Other Howlers.” In this section Warraq points out that Said frequently mixes up the times of western imperialist occupations in the east. One instance of historical errors on Said’s part, among many, that Warraq mentions is that Said claims Britain and France were colonizing “the eastern Mediterranean, when in fact the Levant was still controlled for the next hundred years by the Ottomans” (Warraq 23). Warraq’s detailed analysis of Said’s historical facts at times may seem excessive, but it also proves that Said’s work has major historic inaccuracies, thus weakening Said’s arguments found in Orientalism. Warraq’s research also demonstrates that Said has misrepresented the perspectives of some of his sources. In Warraq’s sub section “Intellectual Dishonesty and Tendentious Reinterpretations,” he uses Said’s sources in quotation form to prove that Said gave readers the wrong idea about what his sources’ arguments. By giving readers the actual, full quotations Said refers to in Orientalism along with Said’s actual interpretation of those quotes (Warraq 24–28), Warraq establishes that he is more than justified in attacking Said’s argument based on the grounds of sloppy scholarship.

In the second section of Defending the West, Warraq supplies readers with a refresher in occidental cultural traditions that contradict Said’s claims about the so called racist and imperialist agenda of Orientalists. For example, Warraq points out that Orientalism began with the Greeks hundreds of years before western imperialism. He shows that even though some Greeks, like Plutarch, generalized other cultures as barbaric, many Greek orientalists admired and respected the east and showed a very progressive sense of universalism and a genuine yearning to know and understand other cultures in their orientalist works, such as Herodotus’ historical account of the Persians, which actually sympathized with the invading Persians and lauded their bravery (Warraq 32). Warraq continues illustrating western universalism and rationalism in relation to orientalism, but also supplements it with western accounts of self-criticism for any genuine failings it may have, such as criticism of slavery. Warraq’s rounded refutation of Said soundly shows that Said, if nothing else, has been guilty of making overgeneralizations about the west’s attitude toward the east.

Defending the West continues to refute Said’s arguments in Orientalism as Warraq gives a thorough defense of an extensive catalog of orientalists, including the German ones Said completely ignored, from linguists and authors to artists and musicians, yet what makes Warraq’s argument most controversial is his criticism of Islam. Warraq claims that Said above all is guilty of hypocrisy for reproaching the west about imperialism, slavery, and superiority because Islam is at fault for the same things to a greater extent. Warraq reminds readers that the Islamic empire was a force of imperialism for hundreds of years longer than the west, and he surprises readers by revealing that the Islamic empire was not as tolerant toward the other as commonly believed. They have harbored racist hatred toward the Jews up to this day (Warraq 251–253). Warraq also points out that Islamic countries engaged in slavery, not just of blacks but also of whites and eunuchs, for much longer, to a greater extent, and in even worse conditions than the west (Warraq 248–251). The imperialism and slave trade of Islamic countries is not the only negative quality about Islam, however, as Warraq makes a case that the Islamic tradition of submission to Allah and the Koran has created an environment hostile toward learning about other cultures and toward human rights in the east (Warraq 83 & 284). Warraq’s critiques about Islam, like the rest of the book, are well supported and thus leave readers with a new understanding of east-west relations.

Warraq’s work may be controversial in an age of under-informed and almost paranoid political correctness, yet his scholarship and logic demonstrate that he is providing readers with a sound argument as a whole. Currently, Orientalism is a popular book in college classrooms, yet without assigning Defending the West also, students are being short changed because they have the right to know the full story, so they can utilize their own critical thinking skills to determine where the truth is to be found.

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